Ida Bell Wells, the first of eight children, was born July 16, 1862, to enslaved parents who lived in Holly Springs, Mississippi (Figure 1). Six months later, January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the family from bondage (Figure 1a).
Ida was one of the first-generation out of slavery black women who were educated in schools established by Northern churches and the Freedmen’s Bureau during President Lincoln’s administration in 1865. Her mother made sure her children had religious knowledge as well as literacy.
When Ida was 16 years old a tragic event occurred. During the yellow fever epidemic, both of her parents and her youngest brother died. Ida took on the responsibility of raising her siblings, with the help of her grandmother. She took a teacher’s exam, passed it, alleged her age to be 18, and began teaching as a district teacher to earn a living for her family. Unfortunately, her grandmother had a paralyzing stroke and never recovered, so a friend of her mother’s began helping the family.
In 1881, an aunt invited Ida and her two younger sisters to move to Memphis, Tennessee. Her other siblings went to live with other various relatives. Ida continued teaching, and she kept a diary, which seemed to kindle a genuine interest in journalism.
An Iconic Career Begins
Figure 1. Portrait of Wells, published in 1891 in The Afro-American Press and its Editors by I. Garland Penn. Film copy negative courtesy of Library of Congress.
Ida’s beginning as a published writer came in 1884, when she wrote a series of letters for the black Baptist publication The Living Way under the pen name, Iola. She wrote about her experience the previous year of being physically ejected from the firstclass car of the Chesapeake and Ohio Southwestern Railroad due to her race. She sued the railroad on the grounds that a firstclass ticket gave her the right to ride in the “whites-only” car. Although in the end litigation against the railroad was not decided in Ida’s favor, this encounter propelled her to a lifetime of writing and seeking social justice for marginalized people. In the space of a few years, Ida became a major figure in journalism.
In 1891, Ida was relieved of her teaching position after she wrote an article criticizing the building conditions and educators of the black schools of Memphis. However, she was already established as a journalist and was able to continue earning a living as the editor and part-owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. One of her editorial series in Memphis Free Speech was anti-lynching: she castigated law enforcement officials for failing to identify the people who lynched three innocent black men. Ida investigated why there were so many lynchings based on rape allegations, and discovered “clandestine interracial relationships,” which she exposed in an editorial in Memphis Free Speech. The article was reprinted in a major newspaper, The Memphis Commercial, as an editorial rebuttal intended to enrage the citizenry. They were encouraged to “avenge the insult to the honor of their women.” In retaliation, a white mob broke into the newspaper office, demolished furniture and the printing presses, and left a note threatening Ida’s life.
Figure 1a. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing millions of slaves in southern states. The centenary of this event in 1963 was commemorated with U.S. Scott 1233, which depicts a broken chain.
Figure 2. The Women’s Suffrage March of 1913 is front page news in Women’s Journal and Suffrage News. Pictures show General Rosalie Jones, Inez Milholland on a white horse, floats, and an aerial view of the parade. Scan courtesy of Library of Congress.
Ida was traveling in New York when she heard about the destruction of the office and the death threat. After hearing from neighbors that her home was being watched — although the black community offered protection — Ida decided to abandon her home and all of her belongings, choosing instead to stay in New York.
Ida eventually settled in Chicago, Illinois in the summer of 1893. She met a successful, attorney and newspaper owner and editor, Ferdinand Lee Barnett, and they were married on June 27, 1895. Ida chose in defiance to custom to keep her maiden name and hyphenate her husband’s name. They had four children. She embraced her role of motherhood entirely, but never ceased her activism. In fact, she became the editor of her husband’s newspaper, The Conservator, which was Chicago’s first African-American newspaper, founded in 1878. The Barnetts were both dedicated to uplifting the plight of the black community, always fighting racial injustice. Indeed, Ida was, and remained active in justice and advocacy projects.
Wells’ journalism career thrust her onto the world stage. She was an investigative reporter — opinionated, but determined to reveal the horrors of lynching. She lectured around the country and in Great Britain and Scotland, many times taking one of her infants with her. When Ida was lecturing in New York, a close friend and supporter, Susan B. Anthony, invited her to be a house guest. Ida was a prolific writer for many newspapers, unafraid to write about politics, women’s rights, and human rights. She became known as the “Princess of the Press.” She eventually wrote pamphlets and authored several books.
Ida the Suffragist
Ida was very active in the women’s suffrage movement. She belonged to the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Locally, she started the Alpha Suffrage Club (ASC), whose members canvassed the neighborhoods, encouraging African American women to register to vote. The ASC raised money to send Ida as a delegate to the National Suffrage Parade held March 3, 1913, in Washington, D.C. Ida protested that the parade’s leaders, including suffragist Alice Paul, decided to segregate the march in an effort to not upset the Southern women. The “colored women” were relegated to gather and march at the rear of the parade. Ida stood on the sidelines, and when the Illinois delegation came by, she joined in with two of her fellow suffragists, Belle Squires and Virginia Brooks (Figures 2, 3).
Figure 3. This photographic print, taken on March 3, 1913, depicts nurses marching near the U.S. Capitol at the Women’s Suffrage March. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
During her lifetime, Ida B. Wells was ridiculed, ostracized, and marginalized by men and women of both races. She was ahead of her time because of her interest in so many causes. Besides her dedication to the suffrage movement, she became interested in the criminal justice system, desiring to help the many black migrants who were incarcerated in Joliet Penitentiary and the Bridewell prison. Ida worked for a few years as Chicago’s first black probation officer and worked to prevent migrants from being criminalized because they were jobless and homeless.
This phenomenal woman also associated with some of the most dynamic and famous people of that period, including Frederick Douglass, A. Philip Randolph, and W.E.B. DuBois.
After attending several funerals of close associates, and perhaps feeling that her health was failing, Ida told her daughter that she wanted a modest and dignified funeral. After a very brief illness, Ida Wells-Barnett died in a small Chicago hospital of uremic poisoning on Wednesday, March 25, 1931, at the age of 68. She is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.
The Black Heritage Stamp
On February 1, 1990, the U.S. Postal Service issued its 13th entry in the Black Heritage series: a commemorative stamp depicting Ida B. Wells (Figure 4). The first day ceremony took place at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The value of the stamp is 25¢.
Thomas Blackshear, an artist and illustrator native to Novato, California, is the stamp’s designer. The finished stamp is based on a 1915 portrait. Blackshear’s main challenge was to choose a background for the portrait that would symbolize Ida’s career — a common feature of the Black Heritage stamp series. He decided to depict a line of protestors carrying picket signs, which characterizes Wells’ involvement with the women’s suffrage and justice movements.
The city of Chicago has bestowed honor to Ida B. Wells-Barnett in many ways. The Chicago Housing Authority authorized a change of name of the South Park Gardens Housing Project to the Ida B. Wells Housing Project in 1939 (Figure 5). The Project was demolished in 2002.
Figure 4. Ida B. Wells was honored in 1990 in the Black Heritage stamp series. U.S. Scott 2442.
Figure 5. A discussion group meets at the Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Chicago, IL. Photographed in March of 1942 by Jack Delano. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
In 1974, her private residence at 3624 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive was recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a Chicago historic landmark and a national landmark.
This fearless lady is also recognized in many museums, including the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Ida B. Wells dedicated her entire life to trying to correct the many injustices she saw that affected men, women, and children in this country and abroad. The picket line in the Wells stamp leaves our nation with her legacy: activism, protest, advocacy, and determination. Her words are wisdom for the ages:
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
References and Further Reading
Amick, George. Linns U.S. Stamp Yearbook. (Sidney O.H.: Amos Hobby Publishing; 1990): 18–20.
Bay, Mia. To Tell The Truth Freely. (New York: Hill and Wang; 2009): 9, 23, 74, 75, 106, 107. 238–40, 297.
Bay, Mia and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. The Light of Truth: The Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader. (Penguin Random House; 2014).
Delano, Jack, photographer. Chicago, Illinois. Ida B. Wells Housing Project. Forum discussion group. Chicago Chicago. Cook County Illinois United States, 1942. Mar. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017828862/.
Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown. (Random House; 2002): 56–57.
Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. 1891. [Published] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/93505758/.
Front page of the “Woman’s journal and suffrage news” with the headline: “Parade struggles to victory despite disgraceful scenes” showing images of the women’s suffrage parade in Washington, March 3. Boston Massachusetts Washington D.C, 1913. Mar. 8. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002716777/.
McMurry, Linda O. To Keep the Waters Troubled. (Oxford University Press; 1998).
Mitchell, Mary. “Ida B. Wells Finally Receives Top Honor With Street Name,” Chicago SunTimes (February 12, 2019).
Morant, Mack Bernard. African Americans on Stamps. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, Inc.; 2012).
Staples, Brent. “When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out,” The New York Times (February 3, 2019): 1, 4.
Suffragette parade Mch. 3d. Washington D.C, 1913. [Mar. 3. Washington, D.C.: lGeorge Grantham Bain, 3 March] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2001704194/.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote 1850–1920 (Bloomington, I.N.: Indiana University Press; 1998).
Editor's Note: "A Courageous American Woman" was published in the February 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing current articles and archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - stay tuned for more articles from AP back issues, and read the full February issue here. Happy Black History Month!